Game 30: Michigan at Northwestern Preview

Dylan Burkhardt
Who: Michigan (19-10, 9-7 B1G) at Northwestern (20-9, 9-7 B1G)
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena (Evanston, IL)
When: 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Michigan and Northwestern both already have one foot into the NCAA Tournament, but the winner of tonight’s match-up will sleep a bit sounder leading up to Selection Sunday.

Michigan still has a chance at securing a top-4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which comes with a double-bye, but it will need to win out and get a little luck from around the league. Northwestern has lost 5 of its last 7 games in a stretch that featured its signature win over Wisconsin, but not much else. The Wildcats started conference play 7-2, but their resume doesn’t look nearly as impressive with a late-season swoon.

The Wildcats

If Northwestern makes its first NCAA Tournament appearance ever, it will be thanks to its defense. The Wildcats have the No. 3 defense in the Big Ten .997 points per possession allowed and boast the best eFG% in the league. While Michigan is averaging 1.14 points per possession in Big Ten games, only one Big Ten team has topped that mark against Northwestern (Purdue on Feb. 1).

Big Ten teams are shooting 44.5% on twos (2nd) and 33.6% on threes (4th) against the Wildcats for a 46.4 eFG%. They’ve also picked up some nice free throw luck, allowing a league-low 66% at the charity stripe in conference games. It’s hard to make shots against Northwestern, but it ranks in the bottom third of the league in forced turnover rate (8th), defensive rebounding rate (11th) and free throw rate allowed (12th). So it is possible to chip away against the Wildcats even without shooting well, but Michigan generally doesn’t make much of an impact in the later two departments.

John Beilein described the Northwestern defense as solid and that’s a good way to put it. There’s nothing flashy or fancy involved, just a group of solid defenders who play well together as a unit and force tough shots.

Northwestern is outscoring its league foes by just 3 points per 100 possessions (compare that to Michigan at 6.2 with the same 9-7 record) despite the great defense. That’s because the offense just hasn’t been consistently effective this season. The Wildcats are scoring 1.03 points per possession (10th) and are the second-worst shooting team in the conference.

Northwestern is shooting 46.3% on twos (10th) and 31.2% on threes (13th) for just a 46.5 eFG%. For context, Michigan’s eFG% in Big Ten games is 56.4% and it has posted an eFG% worse than 46.5% twice this season: at Michigan State (40.2) and at South Carolina (21.1). Northwestern doesn’t get to the free throw line often (30.5 FTA/FGA) and is ranked 9th in the league in offensive rebounding rate, but values the basketball. The Wildcats turn it over on just 15% of their possessions, second in the league to only Michigan.


Junior guard Bryant McIntosh uses 28% of Northwestern’s offensive possessions, but is shooting just 44% on twos and 30% on threes in league play. He is also the No. 2 setup man in the conference with a 36.2% assist rate and the Wildcat offense goes as he goes. He takes a lot of tough twos and off-the-dribble threes and you want to make him beat you with the shot rather than the pass, but if he starts hitting them — as he did in Madison — it can make for a long night.

Only two players in the Big Ten have used more ball screen possessions than McIntosh (Melo Trimble, Tai Webster) and he has close to a 50-50 split in terms of shooting (54%) or passing out (47%) which can make him a tough cover.

Junior wing Scottie Lindsey looked like a potential All-Big Ten player in in January, but was sidelined for four games with mono. This will be his fourth game back and he’s still rounding into form. He’s made just 7-of-18 twos and 2-of-16 threes since his return. He might be slumping, but he’s still the same guy who averaged 18 points per game over the first 7 conference games.

6-foot-7 sophomore Vic Law has ugly shooting splits — 35% on twos, 35% on threes for a 42.1 eFG% — but he’s a high-level athlete with length on the wing. Law’s offense generally comes off of spot ups, screens and in transition and he won’t hesitate to attempt the mid-range jumper.

Freshman guard Isiah Brown is the other Northwestern player who will fill the McIntosh role of playmaker off the bounce. Like McIntosh, he isn’t very efficient. Brown does a good job of drawing fouls, but he loves the mid-range jumper and is shooting just 40% on twos and 24% on threes.

6-foot-8 sophomore Dererk Pardon was going to redshirt last season before Alex Olah’s injury last season,but the experience he gained has proven valuable. Pardon is ranked in the conference’s top-10 in offensive rebounding rate, 2-point shooting (59%) and shot blocking. He’s also staying out of foul trouble and playing major minutes (at least 32 in each of the last 6 games). He seems like someone strong and mobile enough that he could give Moritz Wagner some issues defensively and the foul situation with both bigs will be an important storyline.

Sanjay Lumpkin starts at the four at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds. He’s a glue guy who grabs defensive rebounds and cuts to the rim. He’s only using 10.6% of Northwestern’s offensive possessions while he’s on the floor and is shooting 63% on twos, but has only made 7-of-25 threes in Big Ten play.

Backup big man Gavin Skelly is active in the pick-and-roll game and will shoot the three (32%), but he shoots just 39% inside the arc. He’s an active offensive rebounder and shot blocker, but he’s not very diverse offensively.

6-foot-7 forward Nathan Taphorn is the primary perimeter shooting threat to track. He’s the most consistent three-point threat on the roster and when he’s in the game he simply has to be run off the line.


  • Pick-and-roll defense: Michigan has faced a lot of post-up heavy teams in recent weeks, but it’s pick-and-roll defense will be tested in Evanston. 30% of Northwestern’s offensive possessions derive from the ball screen game, but it ranks just 12th in the Big Ten in terms of efficiency.
  • Defensive rebounding: Northwestern’s offensive rebounding numbers don’t jump off the page, but they are 16-1 when they rebound at least 28% of their missed shots this year. When they rebound under 28% of their misses they are just 4-8. Michigan’s defensive rebounding isn’t great, but it will be important in a game where there are likely to be plenty of misses.
  • Push the pace: Michigan is at its best when its getting stops and pushing the ball off of clean rebounds and steals. Northwestern’s halfcourt defense grades out in the 94th percentile, per Synergy, while its transition defense is only in the 65th. There could be opportunities to push the ball for the Wolverines and avoid facing that stingy halfcourt defense.

Bottom Line

KenPom gives Michigan a 44% chance at the road upset, projecting a 67-65 Northwestern win. It feels like a game where Northwestern could struggle to keep up with Michigan’s offense on a good day, but the Wolverines will need to crack the tough Wildcat defense.

  • bebopson

    Really need DJ to have a good game to complement Mo. That would put a lot of pressure on Pardon and take some heat off Mo. I would alternate dialing up Mo and DJ against Pardon.

    • iBleedBlue

      Hope DJ guards Lumpkin. Law seems like the kind of combo that has given DJ troubles

      • ZRL

        I also hopes Beilein reminds DJ to attack the offensive glass again. This seems like a game where DJ can get 5 OREBs if he focuses on it.

  • A2MIKE

    I agree that Pardon will be a tough cover for Mo, but I think the inverse is also true. Pardon doesn’t move well laterally from what I have seen of Northwestern this year.

    Also, where does Northwestern grade out defensively against the pick’n’roll?

    One more thing, Northwestern feels very much like Michigan a year ago, where they are good on 1 end of the floor but not great and below average on the other end of the floor. They are 1-4 against the top 7 in the conference, which says a lot. Michigan is 3-4.

  • ChiMan

    One benefit I didn’t consider initially is the start time. This is a 6pm CST start, so perhaps the Chicago/Evanston traffic gods will do us a favor lol I could see this being a crowd that gets rowdy but takes some time to trickle in. Unfortunately, unlike many schools, Northwestern’s classes are in session this week, as their spring break isn’t for 2 more weeks. Going to be a tough matchup and I agree with Beilein in the presser, there will be Michigan fans but likely many less than in the past. Not many tickets on Stubhub this morning. Go Blue!

    • Cory

      It’s Ash Wednesday too. Not sure if that will change attendance though.

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Interesting game, NWestern has shown flaws last couple games, while Michigan has been playing great down the stretch. No doubt this will be a huge game for seeding…if we pull this one off – we have to be considering 1 of the most dangerous teams in the nation…and you don’t want to see us in the B1G tourny or NCAA tourny

    • ChathaM

      John Gasaway at agrees with you, and he has picked us to win the BTT. That seemed crazy to me at first glance, but really, if we continue to guard the way we did for most of the Purdue game, we could win the BTT. I still also feel that we could lose to anyone, but that may just be a remnant of how we looked a month ago.

      • rlcBlue

        I wouldn’t want to rely on picking the winner of the BTT to pay the rent – there is so much parity (detractors would say mediocrity) in the conference this year that almost anybody could win it. That said, we are playing better right now than anybody else in the league, and we can hope for a fair whistle at a neutral site. Assuming Maryland has the most vocal support, it would be good to get on the other side of the bracket from them.

      • Fab 5 Legends

        Completely agree…at times we play really down to our competition…but after that OState game…seems like an entirely different team…if we win tonight…watch out for the maize an blue! We will be a scary draw for anyone…Maryland is on a big slump after losing their center…Wisco hasn’t looked good either

  • Fab 5 Legends

    Vegas loves us lol its a PK / Michigan -1 in most places for whatever that’s worth

    • A2MIKE

      It opened as NW -1. Betting public loves us.

  • Champswest

    I don’t have high confidence for an UM win. This seems like another must win for us, in many ways, but it is even bigger for NW. Plus it is a road game.
    We are the better team and are trending better than NW. I hope that is enough.

    • ChiMan

      Yea, what’s interesting is, Northwestern seems to be chocking a bit under the pressure. I feel for them but I’m hoping it continues for one more night.

  • Northwestern’s last 3 games at home: 7 pt loss to Illinois, 10 pt loss to Maryland, 4 pt win over Rutgers.

    • Fab 5 Legends

      Ya they have not looked good down the stretch…they started with wins @penn state, @nebraska, @rutgers, @ohio state, home to iowa, home to nebraska…@Wisco was their highlight of BigTen schedule…but they are vulnerable and we are looking really good…if we win tonight…We have to be 1 if not THE most dangerous team in the country heading into BTT/NCAA tour

  • Stephen Chang

    This is an important road game for Michigan because Northwestern obviously is not doing well, win this game, it will help Michigan improve their seeding as they wrap up the regular season heading into the BTT.

  • Another Michigan game with apparent reverse line movement: public backing NW, line moved from NW -1 to UM -2.

    • A2MIKE

      No, when the line moves in favor of Michigan that means the public is backing michigan.

  • Northwestern switching every screen early on and doubling Wagner on drive/post-up. Giving U-M a bit of a headache early.

    • What I don’t get is why you keep switching those screens with Donnal on the floor. Still think it is just a matter of time before Michigan can adjust and take advantage of some of those match ups.